To say that some lives are better or worse than others – or that a life is better or worse than it might otherwise have been – is obviously to make a comparative claim. It says nothing about whether any lives are good enough to count as good lives or bad enough to count as bad ones. Most people, however, do make the further claim that there are both good and bad lives. In contrast to the widespread idea that some people have good lives and others bad, I think that while some lives are better than others, no lives are good enough to count as (non-comparatively) good.
One common and instant response to such a claim is indignation. How dare one claim that no lives are good when there are billions of people who say otherwise about their own lives? I dare to make such a claim partly because there is excellent empirical evidence for the conclusion that people’s judgements cannot be trusted as a reliable indicator of how good their lives really are. For example, research psychologists have shown that people are prone to optimism and to optimistic (that is, inaccurately positive) assessments of their own lives. There are many manifestations of this phenomenon. People are more prone to remember good experiences than bad ones; they have exaggerated views of how well things will go for them in the future; and most people think that the quality of their lives is above average. When it comes to assessing their own moral goodness, people also tend to be overly optimistic. Very few people think of themselves as bad. If we were to trust self-assessments, we would have to conclude that there are very few bad people and evil actions, which is patently false.
It has also been shown that people’s judgements about their own lives are influenced by comparisons with the lives of others. One important effect of this is that those bad features of life that are shared by all people tend to go unnoticed in assessments of how well a person’s life is going.
Given the volume of evidence for the existence of such psychological traits that affect people’s judgement, it would be a kind of denialism to insist that people’s self-assessments are reliable.
However, there is a difference between saying that people’s self-assessments of their lives are unreliably positive and saying that people’s lives are not good. After all, it is possible that although people exaggerate the quality of their lives, their lives are nonetheless good. Thus, further argument is required to support the conclusion that life is not good. Why should we think that this is the case?
The simple answer is that whatever view one might have about what makes a life good or bad, human lives fall short on the good things but abound in the bad. In support of this, both some general observations and some more specific ones can be offered.
Consider pleasures and pains. Most lives contain both, to varying degrees, but there is an unfortunate asymmetry between these that seems to apply to even the best of lives. The upshot of this is that there is much more pain than pleasure. For example, while the most intense pleasures, such as sexual or gustatory ones, are short-lived, the worst pains have the capacity to be much more enduring. Indeed, pleasures in general tend to be shorter-lived than pains. Chronic pain is common, whereas there is no such thing as chronic pleasure. Moreover, the worst pains seem to be worse than the best pleasures are good. Anybody who doubts this should consider what choice they would make if they were offered the option of securing an hour of the most sublime pleasures possible in exchange for suffering an hour of the worst pain possible. Almost everybody would put much more emphasis on the avoidance of this pain, even if it entailed the forfeiture of the pleasure. This is not to say that people are unwilling to endure some lesser pains for some greater pleasures. Instead it shows only that the best pleasures do not offset the worst pains, at least of comparable duration.
This asymmetry applies not only to pleasures and pains but also to goods and bads more generally. Consider how an injury can be incurred in a split second and the effects felt for life. While it is true that we can also avoid an injury in an instant, we do not gain benefits that are comparable in their magnitude and longevity in a mere moment. A lifetime of learning can be obliterated by a cerebral stroke, but there are no comparable events in which one acquires as much knowledge and understanding so speedily and easily. One can lose a limb or an eye in a few seconds, whereas gaining mobility or sight, where it is possible at all, never occurs so rapidly, effortlessly or completely. A life in which benefit came quickly and effortlessly, and harm came only slowly and with effort, would be a fantastically better life.
Next, consider the fulfilment of our desires or the satisfaction of our preferences. There are various reasons why there is more unfulfilment than fulfilment. First, many desires are never fulfilled. Second, even when desires are fulfilled, this usually occurs only after the exercise of effort. This means that there is a period of time in which the desire is not yet fulfilled. Finally, when desires are eventually fulfilled, the satisfaction is typically only transitory. Satisfied desires give way to new desires. (For example, one is hungry, eats to satiety, but then becomes hungry again.) Thus a relatively small proportion of life is spent satisfied.
On some views the good life is constituted not only of pleasure and fulfilled desires, but also of certain purportedly objective goods such as knowledge, understanding, aesthetic appreciation and virtue. It is noteworthy, however, that as advanced as some of these may be in some humans, they are only a fraction of what they could, in principle, be. Human knowledge and understanding are infinitesimal. What we do know and understand is only a tiny fraction of everything that there is to know and understand. Thus there is a much greater difference between what we know and what there is to be known, than there is between what we know and knowing nothing. In other words, on the vast spectrum from knowing nothing to knowing everything, we fall very close to the ignorance pole. Similar things might be said about aesthetic appreciation. The range of colours, sounds and smells we can perceive is limited and thus as rich as our aesthetic appreciation may seem to us, it is grossly retarded. As for virtue, it should be clear that humans are not angels. Even the morally best humans could be so much better.
People tend to forget how much of their lives are spent tired, hungry, thirsty, in pain and being either too hot or too cold or in need of voiding their bladders and bowels. The same is true of how much time people spend bored, stressed, anxious, fearful, frustrated, irritated, sad, and lonely, to name but a few examples. Also unnoticed is how bad the worst parts of a life are. They often, but not always, come later in life, but the life as a whole cannot be evaluated without considering them. Moreover, we spend a very short period of time in our prime. Most of a person’s life, for those who live to old age, is spent in steady decline. Those who think that longer lives are better, all things being equal, must recognise that a lifespan of about eighty years, including periods of frailty, is terrible in comparison with a life of youthful vigour that lasts several hundred or thousand years. Our lives are much worse relative to that standard than are the lives of those who die young relative to the current standard of human longevity.
Cheery people – those who think that life is, or at least, can be good – invariably attempt to reconcile the many bad things in life with the possibility of a good life. That is to say, they offer what might be called a “secular theodicy”. But, like conventional theodicies, which attempt to reconcile the vast amount of evil in the world with God’s existence, the secular theodicy of optimists puts the conclusion before the evidence.
Sometimes the optimists say that the bad things in life are necessary to appreciate the good things. It is unclear whether everybody suffers from this malady. Are there not some people who would be able to appreciate the good even if there were no bad? Perhaps they are a minority. In any event, it is also not clear why those who do need to experience bad in order to appreciate the good need to experience quite so much bad. And if we were to assume that all the bad in a life is necessary in order to appreciate the good, that itself would be another very bad feature of life. It would be much better if all those bad things were not necessary.
Another optimistic response to the poor quality of human life is to argue that human life must be judged by human standards. According to this view, it is unreasonable to expect human life to be judged by unattainably higher standards. It is an implication of this view that the many deficiencies and negative features of human life that are common to all humans are excluded from consideration in determining how good a human life is. To see what an astoundingly blinkered argument this is, consider some imaginary species, which we might call Homo infortunatus. Members of this species have a quality of life worse than most humans. Their pain and suffering is plentiful, but life for them is not without some pleasures. In response to claims that members of this species lead poor quality lives, the optimists among them might retort that if their lives were significantly better, they simply would not be infortunati. That response would be unimpressive. There is a difference between (a) asking how good the lives of members of a species are, and (b) asking whether a much better life is compatible with being a member of that species. Perhaps a much better life than ours would no longer be a human life. It does not follow that human life is not that much worse.
What follows from the conclusion that life is not good? It does not follow that we should all kill ourselves. There are lots of good reasons for this. For example, even if our lives are bad, they might not be bad enough to warrant killing ourselves. Moreover, suicide leaves bereaved people, whose lives are made worse by the death of the person who has taken his own life. Thus, in the balancing of one’s own interests and those of others, one has to consider very carefully whether the quality of one’s life is so bad as to warrant inflicting the trauma of one’s suicide on others. This problem would be avoided if everybody took their own lives at roughly the same time, but that is not going to happen.
Nor should anybody convinced by my arguments seek to kill all people against their wishes as an act of mass (involuntary) euthanasia. There are lots of good reasons for this too, but one of them is that decisions about whether a person’s life has reached an unbearably low level should, where possible, be left to the person whose life it is. A person may overestimate how good her life is. It is one thing for others to make the observation that this is the case. It is quite another to terminate that person’s life.
What does follow, I think, from the conclusion that life is not good, is that we should not create more of it. When we bring new people into existence we start more lives that are not good – and we necessarily do this without the permission of those who will live those lives. We have no duty to create new people and failing to create people can do no harm to those we fail to create. Not having children might make our own lives less good, but starting lives that are not good, merely for our own gratification, is unduly selfish.
David Benatar is professor and head of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa